The Second World War and the Baltic States

by James S. Corum (Volume editor) Olaf Mertelsmann (Volume editor) Kaarel Piirimäe (Volume editor)
Edited Collection 331 Pages
Series: Tartu Historical Studies, Volume 4


This volume places the history of the Second World War and the Baltic states into a multidisciplinary and international perspective. It includes contributions from the fields of diplomacy, strategy, military operations, intelligence and propaganda. It presents not only a multi-layered interpretation of a region affected by total war, but also reveals a great deal about the nature of that conflict. It discusses the attitudes of the great powers towards small states, the nature of military operations around the advent of mechanization and close air support, and techniques of population control and of steering opinion in the era of ideological regimes. Contributions on these topics add to our understanding of the Second World War as a pivotal event in the history of Europe in the 20th century.

Table Of Content

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Preface
  • Introduction
  • Mediation and Intervention in the Back of Beyond: Small States in the Eastern Baltic and France’s Strategic Calculations, 1936–1940
  • Belgian Diplomacy in Exile and the Baltic states 1940–45
  • Minister T.M. Kivimäki in the Center of Europe – for the Periphery of Europe
  • Wartime Diplomacy in London: How Britain Came to Partially Recognize the Soviet Annexation of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania
  • Needs and Realities in Estonian Air Defense: The Interwar Years
  • The Baltic Region in the Soviet–German War, 1941–1945
  • First Air Fleet Operations in the Baltic Region, June–December 1941
  • The 15th Division of the Latvian Legion in the Fight on the Velikaya River (1 March–14 April 1944): A Case Study in Maintaining Fighting Power
  • County Level Operational Groups as Part of the Soviet Strategy to Reoccupy Estonia during the Second World War
  • Exodus and Intelligence Operations: the Swedish Military and Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, 1943–45
  • Between Aspiration and Adaptation: German War Propaganda in Occupied Estonia from 1941 till 1942
  • The Reception of German War Propaganda in Estonia, 1941–1944
  • The Relationship of the Military and Civilian Authorities in Estonia during the German Occupation of 1941–1944
  • Second Front in the West: Estonia, the Baltic Question and the Struggle for British Public Opinion, 1941–44
  • List of Contributors
  • Series index

← 6 | 7 → Preface

The study of history is important to the military profession as history provides a foundation in reality and the best means to critically examine strategies, doctrines and concepts. Through the study of history we can understand the complex nature of conflict, which includes not only the military sphere, but also the spheres of diplomacy, intelligence, economics as well as the relationship between the people and the military. Military officers also need a thorough understanding of the forces that shaped their own country and region.

Of course, understanding the history of conflict is also important for political leaders, diplomats, academics and for the general public. As an academic institution, as well as a military one, the Estonian National Defence College has a duty to further good historical scholarship, not only for the officers we educate, but also for the wider public. For this reason we have sponsored this work, The Second World War and the Baltic States, in the framework of the research project “The Military History of Estonia in the Context of the Development of Warfare in the Wider World”.

In The Second World War and the Baltic States it is our goal to fill a big gap in the history of World War II. The Baltic states have been long overlooked as a major theater of operations in the major histories of the war, largely because access to archives and documents and witnesses to the wartime events were largely shut off during the period of Soviet occupation from 1944 to the reestablishment of the independence of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania in 1991. The end of the Cold War also resulted in the opening up of intelligence and diplomatic archives. The full freedom to pursue academic research and the opening of archives since 1991 provided the opportunity to develop a history of events in this region based on thorough research.

In the twenty-two years since Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania regained their independence the goal of the three Baltic nations in all spheres of endeavor—political, military, economic, social and academic—has been to build modern democratic societies that are fully integrated with the West. In Estonia, as in the other Baltic states, we have worked from small beginnings to build modern armed forces that fully meet the professional standards of the older NATO and Western nations. This also meant developing the Estonian National Defence College and other Baltic military education schools such as the Baltic Defence College (which also supported the publication of this book) into high quality institutions of higher learning meeting the same standards of scholarship as the civilian universities of the region.

In this book we have assembled a team of first rate international scholars to present well-written and researched chapters covering several of the major aspects ← 7 | 8 → of World War II in the Baltic states. Looking at the war in the broad sense this work includes chapters on diplomacy, strategic thinking, propaganda, and military-civil relations as well as military operations. Our authors include well-known academics from Estonia, Latvia, Finland, the United States, Sweden, France and Belgium. They have written the first general work on the World War in the Baltic states that is written to the highest professional standards of research and objectivity. We expect that it will be widely read and well-received as a major original work of scholarship. Of course, as these authors themselves note, there are still many gaps to be filled in the history of the World War in the Baltic region—but this is a very good start.

As commandant of the Estonian National Defence College I see the publication of this book as proof that our school has matured into an institution that can produce scholarly analysis as good as any produced in the top military colleges. The fact that more than half of the excellent team of scholars who wrote this book are from the Baltic states is also proof that our academics can meet the highest professional standards.

While proud of this book, we see it as a beginning, not an end. A good education requires a foundation of good scholarship, and a good understanding of current policy requires a thorough and objective analysis of the past. The Estonian National Defence College, in partnership with other regional academic institutions such as Tartu University and the Baltic Defence College, is looking forward to sponsoring more contributions to the history of conflict in the Baltic states in future years.

Colonel Martin Herem


Estonian National Defence College

← 8 | 9 → Introduction

James S. Corum, Olaf Mertelsmann and Kaarel Piirimäe

In most Western histories of the Second World War the Baltic states are a virtual terra incognito. The affairs of the Baltics are usually presented as a marginal sideshow to the greater developments in other areas of Europe. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are discussed as objects of bargaining in the diplomacy of the Great Powers, so they appear in the context of the Three–Power negotiations in 1939, the Nazi–Soviet Pact of August 1939, the Anglo–Soviet negotiations in May 1942 and the Big Three conference in Teheran in November–December 1943.1 There is usually a brief note about the destruction of these states by the USSR in 1940, just about the same time as Nazi Germany’s forces entered Paris.2 Even interpretations on the role of the smaller states in the war generally exclude Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.3 In military histories the Baltic theatre of operations has been almost universally excluded, although the area was a critical staging ground for Nazi campaigns in the North-West of the Soviet Union and an important link to Finland.4 In most textbooks, there is almost nothing about the history of the Baltic states after 1943. For example, in Tony Judt’s extremely rich and detailed monograph about post-war Europe Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania appear, as dei ex machina, only in the late 1980s.5

This book is the result of the recognition that such an oversight is untenable, and for two reasons. First, the intrinsic importance of the Baltic states in the development ← 9 | 10 → of the Second World War, from the Nazi–Soviet pact to the uneasy peace of May 1945, merits greater attention. The pact of August 1939, which unleashed war in Europe, was largely an agreement about spheres of influence over the Baltic states. In 1941 the take-over of these countries was one of the pillars for Hitler’s plan for the conquest of the Soviet Union, just as the re-occupation of the Baltics figured as one of the basic assumptions in Stalin’s post-war vision. The so-called Baltic question was a matter of contention in the relations of the Big Three Allies and gave an early warning as to how these relations might develop after the defeat of the common enemy. Secondly, since the regaining of the Baltic states’ independence in the late 1980s and early 1990s the histories of these states have progressed from the sphere of ideological contention, speculation and even outright falsification to that of rigorous research. There are first-class analyses that need to be brought to the attention of a wider academic community.

The first starting point for this book is regional – to deal with what we think is still largely a blank spot in the history of Europe. The second starting point is multidisciplinarity – we wanted to bring together historians of many historical subdisciplines, being convinced that historians should learn from their colleagues in other fields. We are happy that we were able to include contributions in fields such as diplomacy, foreign policy, strategy, military operations, intelligence, administration and propaganda. As a result, this book presents not only a rich and multi-layered perspective on a region affected by the Second World War, but also tells us a great deal about the general nature of that conflict. It deals with the views of the Great Powers towards the small states, the widening gap between the military capabilities of the smaller and the larger states, the nature of military operations at the advent of mechanization and close air support, the techniques of population control in the era of ideological regimes, and the problems of guiding public opinion in a democracy. Contributions to these themes add to our understanding of the Second World War as a pivotal event in the history of Europe in the 20th century.

The book is divided into three parts. The first part brings into focus the international background of the Baltic states’ transition from the 1930s to the 1940s, the loss of their independence and the rise of the Baltic question in international politics. Louis Clerc brings the analysis of French involvement in the Baltic affairs to a new level. Finnish historian Kalervo Hovi has studied French policies towards the region immediately after the First World War6, but we know very little of French perceptions, attitudes and policies in the rest of the inter-war period and even during the crucial months of the French–British–Soviet negotiations in 1939. Clerc sees the main French objectives as follows: to keep the Baltic open, to appease relations between different actors in the region, and to keep Germany in check. This ‘policy ← 10 | 11 → of equilibrium’, he observes, was practiced in other peripheries of Europe as well. Paris tried a variety of methods to achieve these goals, from fostering cooperation between the small states, working towards stabilization through middle-sized powers (mostly Poland, sometimes Sweden), using the League of Nations, to toying with ideas of a Baltic alliance or Nordic cooperation. The last option, which appeared in 1939, was ‘imperial stabilization by a resurgent Russia’, which appealed to some commentators who were inclined to view the Baltic states as unstable, unreliable, and as accidents of History. However, Clerc notes, French decision-makers hesitated to condone a Soviet Monroe Doctrine in the Baltic. Indeed, it was the Nazi–Soviet rapprochement in August 1939 that saved Paris from the embarrassment of having to endorse a Soviet sphere of influence in the Baltic.

Thierry Grosbois’ article is the first analysis of the Belgian perceptions of the Baltic affairs in the context of the long-established tradition of ‘diplomatic reserve’ and, since 1936, of strict neutrality vis-à-vis the great powers. Until 1939, Grosbois notes, diplomatic and consular posts in Scandinavia and the Baltics were considered relatively unimportant, although Brussels kept an eye on the development of the policy of neutrality in the region. This had direct implications to Belgium’s own hopes at steering clear of alliance politics. In 1939–1941 Scandinavia and the Baltics became an important observation post on the evolution of Nazi and Soviet policies in the region. In June 1941 Belgium became an ally of the USSR and, from that moment, the Belgian government in exile maintained a silence regarding Baltic affairs. As the Baltic states had not been able to create governments in exile, no diplomatic relations existed, even though the Baltic states had diplomats operating in London and Washington. Foreign Minister Paul-Henri Spaak aligned the Belgian diplomatic position with that of Britain, even though the Belgian Foreign Ministry had few illusions as to the nature of the Soviet regime in the Baltic states. The position was maintained until the start of the Cold War in 1948. The Belgian views of the Baltic affairs, well reconstructed on the basis of archival documents, offer an extremely interesting and fresh perspective on the history of the Baltic states in the period.

Pauli Heikkilä’s article provides another small-state perspective on the developments in the Baltic. This is essentially a Finnish viewpoint, but it is developed and articulated in the center of power of the Nazi ‘New Europe’. Heikkilä focuses on the observations of a seasoned Finnish politician, Taivo Kivimäki, who served as Finnish minister in Berlin from 1941 to 1944. As Heikkilä notes, Finland closely observed the development of Nazi plans for the reorganization of Europe and the fulfillment of Nazi ideology in the occupied territories as these factors could affect the relations between Finland and Germany. Helsinki took particular interest in Nazi policies in the neighboring Estonia. Kivimäki commented that Germany’s relatively lenient attitude towards the Estonians could be explained by their desire to reassure their Finnish allies. Kivimäki was disappointed to find by 1942 that the ← 11 | 12 → Nazis lacked a clear blueprint for long term development of East-Central Europe and eventually offered his own vision, which he introduced to the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs as well as to the Finnish President Risto Ryti. As a pre-condition for establishing peace, Kivimäki believed that European nations had to organize a common defense against Russia, the perennial non-European enemy. Thereafter they should all, including Germany, surrender part of their sovereignty and join a European Confederation, the main purpose of which was to avoid further wars on the continent. The methods by which this would be achieved remained vague, as Kivimäki readily acknowledged, but it seemed that he supported armed coercion against violators of peace if necessary. As opposed to resistance groups in occupied Europe, as well as the many organizations studying post-war plans in Allied countries who proceeded from the assumption of a German defeat, Kivimäki tried to adjust his ‘fundamentally liberal plan’ to the assumption of a German victory.

Tina Tamman takes us from Berlin to war-time London, where the representatives of the extinct Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian governments sought to maintain their pre-war status, clinging to the notion of state continuity under international law, and to fight for their nations’ self-determination. Tamman focuses on the thorny financial issues surrounding the Baltic question in British–Soviet relations and on the delicate question of London’s de facto recognition of the Soviet annexation. The Soviet claim to Baltic assets in Britain led to proceedings in British courts, where the legal basis of the Soviet claim – the Nationalization Laws of 1940 – was subjected to close scrutiny. The case of the Estonian ship SS Vapper stands out as the most important one. As Tamman suggests, the Foreign Office delayed the court hearings until after the end of the war, as it feared harmful publicity if it was required by the judge to provide information as to the official position on the Baltic states. Indeed, HM Government’s opinion that the Baltic states had de facto been incorporated into the Soviet Union could have been taken up by Nazi propagandists with the effect of causing embarrassment for the Allies in war time. But this was relatively harmless in 1946. However, the consequences were unfortunate for the Baltic states, Tamman argues, as they had now to face the fact of a British de facto recognition of the Soviet annexation. The irony in this was that the Baltic representatives pressed for the case to continue in the court, as they hoped to profit from a favorable verdict.

The history of military operations in the Baltic region in World War II is not well-studied or understood and remains as a serious gap in the narrative of the war. However, progress is being made and in recent years there have been some important works in the subject. A good starting point is the ten volume official German history of World War II produced by the Bundeswehr’s Military History Research Office. The history of the German operations is the product of a first rate group of scholars and is soundly based on documents in the German military archives. For ← 12 | 13 → those interested in Baltic operations one should look to volume 4, Der Angriff auf die Sowjetunion, and volume 8, Die Ostfront 1943/44.7

In the English language one of the most important recent works is Howard Greer’s Hitler, Dönitz and the Baltic Sea: The Third Reich’s Last Hope, 1944–19458. Greer looks at the role the Baltic region played in Hitler’s grand strategy in the last year and a half of the World War. Greer provides a very convincing argument that Hitler gave a high priority on holding Estonia and the Baltic coast as long as possible as a means of turning the war around in Germany’s favor. Hitler’s naval commander, Grossadmiral Karl Dönitz, needed to hold the Baltic Sea securely in German hands in order to train and prepare a large fleet of the new long range type XXI submarines (equipped with snorkel gear for running their diesel engines underwater) in order to unleash a new U-boat offensive in 1945 that would finally cut American supplies and troops from Britain and Europe. In turn, this would cripple Allied operations in the West and make the Western Allies amenable to a negotiated peace with Germany. Indeed, the Baltic was the last body of water in which the Germans could hope to train their naval forces without Allied interference and for this reason Hitler sent reinforcements to the Narva front and aimed to hold the Estonian coast in order to keep the Soviet fleet bottled up in Leningrad. In addition, the Estonian shale oil fields were one of Germany’s last major sources of fuel and that alone also made holding the Baltic coast an important strategic objective. Greer provides some other insights into Hitler’s strategy. He argues that when Estonia was finally overrun Hitler insisted on holding on to Courland as the basis for future operations against the Soviet Union in which the Wehrmacht would again take the offensive. Greer’s work is based on thorough research of German archival documents and provides some important insights into Hitler’s strategy making, the role of the German Navy in Hitler’s thinking, and the hopes of using the Baltic coast later for a German counterattack.

Another important work that is essential to understanding military operations in the Baltic region is David Glantz’s The Battle for Leningrad, 1941–1944.9 This is another thoroughly researched book using both the German and Soviet archives and provides a detailed look at all the ground operations from the initial advance of the Wehrmacht to the gates of Leningrad in 1941, the siege of the city from 1941 to early 1944, and the Russian offensive to clear the Germans from the Leningrad region in 1944.

← 13 | 14 → Yet after these excellent historical works the history of military operations in the Baltic states becomes very thin. There have been some recent books on the battles on the Narva front from February 1944 to July 1944 describing how the Wehrmacht successfully held the Soviet forces. However, books such as Mansal Denton’s The Battle for Narva 1944, while well-illustrated and useful for the reader, tend to give only the German side of the battle and do not provide footnotes or archival information.10 Such works of popular history are largely based on memoirs from Wehrmacht soldiers (and Estonians) who fought on that front. But memoirs, while providing a tactical level view of the war, are no substitute for the actual unit logs and records in determining just how the battles were fought and how the battles fit into the operational and strategic plans. Unfortunately, due to the loss of much of the German military archives through the Allied bombing of Potsdam in 1945, the records from the German side contain big gaps in the material from the army groups, armies, corps and divisions that fought in Estonia in 1944. The operational records of the Luftwaffe units on the Eastern Front in 1944 and 1945 are also extremely thin. This, coupled with a reluctance of the Russians to allow ready and unrestricted access to their World War II archives for Western historians, remains a big problem in writing the operational history of World War II.

There are some major areas of Baltic military operations that provide opportunities for historians. To date there has been very little written about naval operations in the Baltic from 1941 to 1945 and this is an area that should be addressed.11 Although the Baltic never saw any great fleet operations it was still the scene for constant naval operations. The German and Finnish navies, often working closely together (the one case where Germans and Finns did act as allies), carried out naval landings on the Baltic coast and supported ground operations with naval gunfire on many occasions. The Germans and Finns also worked together to mine the Gulf of Finland and patrolled constantly to intercept and engage all the Soviet attempts to break out of Leningrad to the Baltic. Later in the war, when the Soviets were finally able to send ships into the Baltic, the Germans had to conduct anti-submarine operations against the Red Fleet. In terms of archival sources there is plenty of material to work with as most of the German naval records of the Baltic Sea forces (located in the Bundesdarchiv/Militärarchiv in Freiburg) survived the war and offer an enterprising historian of the future with a sound foundation to write a detailed history of the Baltic naval operations.

← 14 | 15 → Another opportunity to fill a major gap in the operational history of the Baltic region is the German defense in Latvia through the summer and fall of 1944. The German divisional, corps and army records for this region and period still exist along with the German maps (in the German Archives in Freiburg). A book on the military operations in Latvia from the Soviet summer offensive to the fall of Riga in October is not only doable, but would fill a big gap in the operational history of the Eastern Front.

In terms of this book, the authors have made some steps in filling some gaps in the operational history of the World War in the Baltic States. We begin with the chapter by Mika Raudvassar on the pre-war Estonian Air Force and air defense doctrine and plans. Although this chapter does not fit into the wartime events that are the focus of the book, it still provides some useful background on the armed forces of the Baltic states as the World War began. This is especially useful as there is very little written in English or German on the Baltic armed forces in the interwar period. Raudvassar points out that although Estonia was limited in resources and people, that country was able to build a fairly capable armed forces in the interwar period. The Estonians had a well-led and well-trained officer corps that was well aware of military doctrine and developments in the rest of the world and adapted the most ideas from larger air forces to develop a comprehensive air defense system. Estonian engineers even developed their own technology for range finding and computing that was highly advanced for the era. This picture of a small Baltic country’s armed forces on the eve of World War II brings us to a very interesting question. If the Baltic countries had resisted the Soviet demands for bases and territory in 1939 and, like Finland, made a fight for it, how well could they have done? Although the Baltic states air forces and navies were small and armed with largely obsolete equipment, the Baltic armies of 1939 were fairly well equipped and trained and they were led by officers who were up to date in terms of modern war thinking (as Raudvassar points out in the case of Estonia). The likely answer is that the Baltic states, if they had cooperated and militarily resisted the Soviet Union, might well have held off the Soviet forces for a few weeks. Such a response might not have prevented an eventual Soviet victory, but would have dramatically changed the political and strategic dynamics of the Baltic region.

David Glantz in his chapter has provided an invaluable framework for looking at the operations from 1944 to 1945 as a series of operations that were carried out in the context of the larger war. Colonel Glantz concludes that the Baltics was at times a backwater, but at other times, such as during the German advance in 1941, the Baltic coast had a high priority in strategic terms. With his deep understanding of how the Soviets have studied the World War, David Glantz provides an overview of how the Soviets, and now the Russians, have written about the campaigns in the Baltic. This chapter provides the professional historian with some good advice on which campaigns and phases might be the most productive for future research.

← 15 | 16 → James Corum provides an account of the Luftwaffe’s operations in the Baltic region from June to December 1941. For the most part, the Luftwaffe was a highly effective force and played a key role in pushing the very rapid German advance to the gates of Leningrad. In many respects the Luftwaffe was at the height of its powers at this point in the war. It was a battle hardened and highly trained force with excellent equipment and first rate leaders. In 1941 the Luftwaffe was far ahead all other air forces in terms of being able to provide effective close air support for the ground forces. The Soviet Air Force, while large, was no match for the Germans. The Red Air Force had just emerged for the purges with its leadership decimated. Those who survived had little command experience. Training standards were low and most of the equipment was obsolete. Within days the soviet air force was so badly decimated that it was scarcely seen for the next few months. However, Corum also argues that the greatest flaws of the Luftwaffe, its inefficient aircraft production system and the failure to build its training system to meet the personnel demands of a long war showed up dramatically in the Baltic in 1941. Although the Luftwaffe’s losses were fairly low, by October the German units were simply “fought out” in the East and were no longer able to provide the necessary support to the German army. This failure was entirely a self-inflicted wound caused by a lack of attention to training and Ernst Udet’s mismanagement of production from 1936–1941. Corum argues that with another 2,000 aircraft (three additional air corps and 500 transports for logistics) the Luftwaffe could have helped the army maintain the rate of advance and taken Leningrad and Moscow in 1941.

In Valdis Kuzmin’s chapter on the 15th Latvian Division (Latvian Legion) units in combat in 1943–44 we see the kind of excellent analysis that can be produced from the existing records. Mr. Kuzmins has provided us with some important insights into how units performed in battle in the latter half of the war. Some units performed well, some did not. Mr. Kuzmins provides a detailed explanation of what went wrong for the units of the 15th when first committed to combat. This is a valuable contribution not only to our understanding of the realities of combat on the Eastern Front, but also for understanding how the Baltic national units that served in the Wehrmacht were treated by the Germans. We are reminded that much of the war on the Eastern Front consisted of very uncomfortable alliances – of Germans and Finns and Germans with Baltic peoples, not to mention the German alliances with the Romanians, Hungarians and Bulgarians. The German coalition war in the East was based on formal and informal alliances between the Germans, who were neither liked nor trusted by any of their allies due to the German vision ruthlessly exploiting the East. On the other hand, small nations such as Latvia had little choice as the alternative of Soviet dominance was something even worse than German rule, which offered the hope of at least some future autonomy. We can also see with the Latvians another lost German opportunity for, if the Latvian units had ← 16 | 17 → been formed and trained earlier, they would certainly have performed much better in combat in 1943 and 1945.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2014 (April)
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2014. 331 pp., 1 table, 3 graphs

Biographical notes

James S. Corum (Volume editor) Olaf Mertelsmann (Volume editor) Kaarel Piirimäe (Volume editor)

James S. Corum, Lt. Col. USAR ret., is Dean of the Baltic Defence College in Tartu (Estonia). He studied at Oxford University and holds a PhD in History from Queen’s University in Kingston (Canada). Olaf Mertelsmann is Associate Professor in Contemporary History at the University of Tartu. He holds a PhD from the University of Hamburg and has taught in Hamburg, Novosibirsk and Tartu. Kaarel Piirimäe is Professor of Military History at the Estonian National Defence College and Research Fellow at the University of Tartu. He gained his PhD from the University of Cambridge.


Title: The Second World War and the Baltic States